In 1913, Sax Rohmer published the first of many books featuring the evil villain Dr. Fu Manchu, a book entitled The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu. Titan Books is in the middle of republishing Rohmer's series, and the latest installment, The Hand of Fu-Manchu, was released yesterday. While not exactly fantasy, the many mentions of the occult, possible supernatural events, and generally unbelievable events certainly make these novels fantasy-adjacent, and the adventures in these books are a lot of fun.
The Hand of Fu-Manchu tells the story of Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie as they try to figure out the secret of a mysterious box. They soon discover that their nemesis, Dr. Fu Manchu, is alive, even though they thought he had been killed in a previous novel. It's quite the exciting adventure: both men get kidnapped more than once, there are spies to be avoided and codes to be deciphered, and more than one dangerous and deadly animal lurks around the corner. As someone who grew up loving the adventures of Rick Brant, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Ken Holt, I enjoyed the familiar and thrilling style of Rohmer's narrative.
But there was a question that plagued me from the very beginning of the novel: what do we do with the racist imagery that pervades the entire narrative?
Some of the racism is incredibly overt, particularly for a 21st-century eye--the descriptions of all the Chinese and Asian characters, for example, fall into stereotypical language: "crafty," "wicked," with women who are "seductive," "sensual," and "barbaric." These characters, including Fu Manchu, are also often compared to animals--the quote on the back of the Titan reprint is quite representative of this. It reads, "Imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan..." Barely a page goes by without a similar sort of description.
But there's a more subtle racism that threads throughout the novel as well, and that is in Rohmer's descriptions of the setting. The novel takes place mostly in London, which is very foggy--but the fog describe in the novel is always described as a yellow fog. Take, for instance, this passage near the beginning of the novel: "I had closed the window to exclude the yellow mist, but subconsciously I was aware of its encircling presence, walling me in..." Or this passage shortly before the death that kicks off the whole narrative: "There was no fog in the room, but already from the bleak corridor outside it was entering; murky, yellow clouds steaming in at the open door." Given the frequent use of the word "yellow" to describe Asian characters throughout the text, it requires very little work to read this fog metaphorically, as a fog that represents the perceived threat of an Asian presence in England.
And ultimately, as Leslie Klinger points out in a brief essay at the end of the novel, this metaphorical fog does indeed represent the fear of "the yellow peril," that is, fear of Asian conquest, that was prevalent in both England and the United States during the first part of the 20th century. And while her essay is helpful in providing this bit of context, it comes as too little, too late. The context of Rohmer's novel needs to be made clearer from the beginning of the novel, rather than being buried in the copyright page or left until the end of the novel.
But even then, I'm not sure that would be enough. This is different, it seems, than a case like Huck Finn, where the concerning elements are actually uses of language that have (more or less) historical accuracy; in The Hand of Fu-Manchu, the most problematic parts are in the descriptions of the characters, the metaphor of the setting, and even in the central figure of the series--Fu Manchu himself. Unlike the Sherlock Holmes books, which these bear many similarities to, the Fu Manchu series centers on the villain, rather than the detective. The blurbs on the inside cover that praise the novel all talk about how Fu Manchu is a fantastic villain--this seems to be one of the main draws of the series. But his appeal as a villain, I would argue, comes in large part from his racial otherness--his identity as a villain and as a Chinese man are inextricably intertwined, and if you remove one of these elements, the other ceases to matter. And while I certainly wouldn't advocate anything as drastic (and in my opinion, ridiculous) as changing the text the way that Alan Gribben did with Huck Finn, even if we did, I don't think it would work. I think it might just ruin the story.
Certainly, I'm not advocating banning Rohmer's novels, nor do I think it is a bad thing to read them. Not only are they fun stories, but they are also a clear representation of the stereotypes and racist thinking that led to and were perpetuated by "the yellow peril," and are thus historically interesting. But I do think that when republishing works such as The Hand of Fu-Manchu, more care needs to be taken on the part of the publisher to make it clear to readers that such a work is not a product of the 21st century. Maybe a brief editor's note at the beginning of the novel, explaining its historical context would do this; maybe even an essay such as this one highlighting some of the problematic racial imagery while at the same time talking about a love for the story. Such context would enable readers to continue to enjoy the story while also forcing them to recognize the reality of the historical context of the novel, compelling them to wrestle with the same questions that I have here, and encouraging them to figure out for themselves how to address racism in books that they hold near and dear.